Challenges of proselytisation in Dutch and British Ceylon


Protestant missionaries faced a variety of challenges in converting the people of Ceylon whether from Buddhism, Hinduism, or Roman Catholicism. Islam is not in this list because there is no authenticated case of any Ceylonese Muslim converting to Christianity of any form. The Portuguese had made vigorous attempts to convert them, but without any success.

The problems the missionaries faced in Sri Lanka’s North, where Tamil Hindus were in a majority, and in the South, where the majority were Sinhalese Buddhists, were different, though some features were common. Roman Catholics, converted during Portuguese rule, were also highly resistant to Protestant efforts. Neither force nor entreaties worked in their case.

However, Tennent points out that though the number of conversions was not impressive, Christianity, Western ideas, and the education system which came along, had a progressive influence on the population in both the North and the South. The contrasting and common elements between the Tamil-Hindu North and the Sinhalese-Buddhist South are brought out in vivid detail by Sir James Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary in Ceylon from 1841 to1850, in his book Christianity in Ceylon (London, John Murray, 1850).

In the North, protestant missionaries faced open hostility from the Hindus who were heavily under the influence of “Brahminism” (Tennent’s term for Hinduism). In the South, they encountered a “habitual apathy and listless indifference.” Both attitudes adversely affected conversion.

In the South, many converted either to escape persecution or were lured by political and/or economic advantage. But genuine conversion, characterised by a change of heart, was scarce both in the North and the South, Tennent says. This is why, even after five centuries of Western-Christian rule, with missionaries enjoying State patronage, Christians are no more than 7 to 8 per cent of the Ceylonese population.

After 30 years of toil in Jaffna, the American missionaries concluded that “real Christians can only be known to God.” However, Tennent felt that the scene was not so dismal. There was a parallel movement to Christianise ‘Brahminism’ in an ingenious way, he said, giving him the hope that, one day, all Northern Tamils will embrace Christianity in its undiluted form.

He reasoned thus: “Since the natives have had daily opportunities of witnessing the blameless lives of the missionaries and the social happiness which has been diffused even by the partial observance of their purer and more benevolent ethics, there has sprung up among the Hindus of Jaffna, a new party of Gooroos, who profess to have engrafted on Brahminism many of the leading morals of Christianity, and claim them as originally emanating from their own system of religion.”

Further: “The shrewd and observant Tamils have not failed to perceive that there are worldly advantages, as well as spiritual, which distinguish the professors of Christianity, and that even as a social institution, it has the promise of this life as well as that which is to come. As compared with themselves, they see those who have been educated by the Christians become abler men than their uneducated companions. They see in them a more cultivated demeanour and a superior bearing, which wins confidence and paves the way for advancement.”

According to Tennent, in Jaffna, caste became less rigorous due to exposure to Christianity. “The pernicious influence of caste has been shaken, and throughout the whole population of Jaffna, there is an air of independence which at once strikes a stranger as being very dissimilar to that exhibited by the Tamils of the continent of India.”

Commenting on the co-existence of Christian and Hindu ideas among the Northern Tamils, the Church of England reported: “Temples and festivals are not deserted, but their influence has declined. The Brahman is still clung to, but the profound reverence with which he was formerly regarded has ceased to exist; and though the system of Hinduism is still ostensibly maintained, the number of its rigid adherents is becoming comparatively view.”

The influence of education rose during British rule. American missions were allowed to work in the North and their path to proselytisation was modern education, a path the Tamils readily took. But prior to that, especially during Dutch rule, the authorities were unabashedly coercive. Baptism was necessary to avail of any State facility, including education, a government post or even registration of marriage. Mass conversion was the order of the day.

The Portuguese too used force, but their type of Roman Catholicism was more acceptable to the Ceylonese. “The natives became speedily attached to their (the Roman Catholics’) ceremonies and modes of worship.” In colour and grandeur, these were similar to those of the Sinhalese Buddhists. The Ceylonese had stuck to Roman Catholicism “with remarkable tenacity.”

Writing in the middle of the 19th century, Tennant notes that the religion and discipline of the Dutch Presbyterians were almost extinct amongst the natives of Ceylon. “Even in Jaffna, where the reception of these doctrines was all but unanimous by the Tamils, not a single congregation is now in existence,” he reported. In the maritime provinces and Colombo, there were hardly fifty families, he says.

One of the reasons for the failure of the Dutch was their inability to use the local language, be it Tamil or Sinhalese. They used interpreters. The Roman Catholics, on the other contrary (specially the Jesuits from Goa) learnt, spoke and preached in Tamil or Sinhala, often both.

The Dutch also made the mistake using bribery (apart from coercion) in proselytisation. This created “doubts and contempt in the minds of the naturally suspicious minds of the Sinhalese,” Tennent comments. No wonder, as soon as the Dutch left, most Hindus reverted to Hinduism and about 300 temples were built, according to historian Tikiri Abeysinghe. Those who had been converted to Roman Catholicism by the Portuguese, reverted to that faith.

The Dutch established schools, with conversion in mind, but the education imparted was “infinitesimally small” as they believed that “reading and writing are things not so absolutely necessary for the edification of these poor wretches.” But the American protestant missionaries, who came to the Northern Province under British rule, put a premium on education, and that paid dividends.

In 1816, Governor Robert Brownrigg helped the Church of England establish itself in the island. As before, the Jaffna Tamils adopted the Protestant religion, but again, only nominally. Cordiner, the first Colonial chaplain, mistook nominal adherence for genuine conversion and said in 1801, that the “natives of Ceylon are perfectly free both from bigotry and prejudice, having so long wandered in darkness they follow gladly the least glimmerings of light,” he said.

However, Cordiner’s hope was unfounded. By 1806, the number had sharply declined sharply from 136,000. Catholic converts to Protestantism, reverted to Catholicism which they had been practicing secretly with the help of priests from Goa. In the South, the Sinhalese reverted to Buddhism. Even ‘Christians’ were actually worshipers of the Buddha.

A worried Secretary of State for Colonies, Viscount Castlereagh, wrote to Governor Sir Thomas Maitland to press for proper conversions. But when Maitland told him about the failure of the muscular policy pursued by the Dutch, Castlereagh decided to invest in education which, he felt, would lead to conversion.

While the Ceylonese accepted education with alacrity, it made no difference to their religious beliefs though officially, many in the schools were ‘Christians.’ Tennent says that these ‘nominal Christians’ openly designated themselves as ‘Christian Buddhists’ or ‘Government Christians.’ As Rev. J. Davies, Baptist Missionary remarked: “When we ask people their religion, the common reply is: We are of the Government religion!”

Tennent says: “There are large areas in which it will be difficult to discover an unbaptized Sinhalese, and yet in the midst of these, the religion of Buddha flourishes and priests and temples abound. The majority ostensibly profess Christianity, but support all the ceremonies of their own national idolatry and more or less openly frequent the temples and make votive offerings to the idol.”

By P.K. Balachandran